Technically impeccable and utterly professional in its premiere production, “Letters From ‘Nam” nevertheless takes a while to connect on an emotional level with its source material, the deeply moving and disturbing collection of Vietnam War letters edited by Bernard Edelman and published in 1985 as “Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam.”
This is the rare musical that has first-act rather than second-act problems. Act one is all gleaming efficiency, and the emotional impact evoked by the anger, disillusionment and deaths of act two only make the lack of connection in the generic first act more apparent.
The source material is letters written by 18- to 24-year-old Americans without thought of public presentation. They are direct, innocent, uncensored and heartbreaking (some include poems, thereby providing ready-made lyrics). One may well ask whether turning these letters into a musical — with book, lyrics and music by Paris Barclay — adds anything to them. Reading them unadorned may actually be more dramatically and emotionally involving.
Nevertheless, Barclay, a television producer and Emmy Award-winning director (“NYPD Blue”), firmly believes that a dramatic presentation of the letters was necessary, and in spirit, “Letters From ‘Nam” is unabashedly a tribute to the American soldiers who fought in Vietnam and the 58,000 or so who died there. Each performance is dedicated to a soldier who was killed in Vietnam, and at the end Vietnam vets in the audience are applauded.
With a cast of just eight, the musical opens and closes on Memorial Day 2001 with the mother (Maureen McGovern) of one of the soldiers dramatized in the musical speaking to her dead son about her visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
In between, it flashes back to the year the six young soldiers in the musical spent in Vietnam, as the mother counts the days to go before her son comes home (he’s killed on the eve of his departure).
The first notes heard from the eight-piece pit band, splendidly directed from the keyboard by Keith Thompson in Harold Wheeler’s evocative orchestrations, sound Vietnamese. They soon segue into the insistent beat of soft rock, as Barclay’s score ranges toward rap and balladry and includes some a cappella harmonizing. The score, including its theme song, “I Don’t Understand This War,” is solidly professional, but more individuality and variety would be welcome. For the most part, Barclay has adapted the book’s letters into dialogue and lyrics with sensitivity and dramatic skill — particularly after he and his otherwise stage-savvy director Ben Levit eschew the surface aspects of mounting a musical and delve in the second act into the material’s human depths.
McGovern clearly believes in her omnipresent role, bringing to it a strong vocal and personal presence. But it’s essentially passive: The six young actors playing the American soldiers have all the action. Something needs to be done to dramatize this role.
All of the young soldiers are played and sung with real skill, though David Burnham as McGovern’s son could perhaps make himself more ingratiating. As their year in Vietnam proceeds, they battle heat, incessant rain (yes, actual drenching rain), disillusionment and then a series of deaths.
One (Michael Cunio) is captured, and we see him incarcerated in a bamboo cage suspended over the audience, being beaten by a Vietcong guard and bound or strung up on small platforms amid the audience. We learn later that after many years imprisoned he did return to the U.S., only to commit suicide. A clerk (Jeff Mosier, who wields a mean guitar) laments that he’s not involved in any action and then becomes the first to be killed. The soldiers played by Dwayne L. Barnes and Levi Kreis are injured or killed. One, the medic played by Rodney Hicks, escapes more or less unscathed.
Director Levit and set designer Heesoo Kim make imaginative use of the Music Theater’s in-the-round stage, relying on its many traps to whisk props on and off rather than on scenery per se. At one point Kim uses gauzy fabric most effectively to suggest a grove of trees. Faced with the built-in problem of theater-in-the-round, Levit and choreographer Peter Pucci sometimes have the cast prowl around the stage too incessantly, but they do keep things moving.
It’s difficult to judge what future “Letters From ‘Nam” has, given this country’s continuing problem with the Vietnam War — not to mention current events.